With the rise of the internet, trailer music composers and companies like Audiomachine and Two Steps From Hell are able to gain recognition like never before. Sharing and enjoying music, as well as connecting with potential fans and other film score enthusiasts, has never been easier or more intuitive than it is now. With the connectivity of Facebook and the ability to upload personal creations to websites like Youtube, Bandcamp and Soundcloud, there are many choices out there for people who would like to share their work with the world.
For those of us who like to tap into the unknown from time to time, the internet also allows for the discovery of new talent. There are countless of musicians on the internet deserving of recognition and sometimes, with a bit of luck, it is possible to find these hidden gems of amazing music. This was how, during a search on Youtube for new music to inspire me, I stumbled upon the music of Jonathan Russell.
Known on Youtube by his channel JDRcomposer, Jonathan Russell has already gathered his own fan following and his music uploads are very popular with those who find them. He is a talented jazz violinist who likes composing his own original scores, as well as creating fan re-scoring for movie scenes, the results of which he uploads to his channel for others to freely enjoy. His music ranges from the epic and expansive to quiet and reflective, and the library of works on his channel cover a wide range of different moods that inspire all kinds of emotion. I contacted Jonathan and had the privilege of conducting an interview with him about his life, his work and his passion for film and video game music.
To start off, tell us a bit about yourself – who you are, your background and what you’re up to right now.
My name is Jonathan Russell, but I go by JD or JDR online. I started playing violin when I was three years old (classically trained) and then switched over to jazz violin when I was 5, and have been playing in clubs and festivals internationally since then. I’ve just started NYU undergrad in music composition, while working at an advertising agency in New York and taking whatever work comes to me.
How did you first get into composing?
It all started when I was about 4 or 5 years old-my family and I are huge Disney world junkies, and by that age I was over my fear of loud noises enough to watch the fireworks. We watched the EPCOT show (Illuminations: Reflections of Earth) with music written by Gavin Greenaway, and I was instantly hooked. My parents had to get me a CD of music from the park so I could listen to it all day. My first foray into the world of film scoring was after hearing the score to Pirates of the Caribbean when I was 12. I spent the next year teaching myself the themes on piano (I never really took formal lessons), until my mom told me to shut up with the pirate music and write my own music. So, six years later, here I am.
What software do you use when composing?
I’m a logic guy, and I use mostly East West/Quantum Leap sounds in my music, along with various other standard libraries that one would usually find in a film scoring rig. Once in a while I’ll turn to Sibelius if I know I’m going to need printed music. I’m actually working on a suite for string orchestra and violin using only Sibelius to write, which is a great learning opportunity for me not to “cheat” and write only what a standard orchestra is capable of playing, without any of the synths or huge drums to support it.
Tell us about your creative process when making music.
Once I find the beginning of a piece, it’s really just stream of consciousness. I write in Logic so often because I just have to make sure I get all of my ideas out of my head and onto a tangible and listenable source so that I don’t lose anything. It’s just write, write, write until I feel like I’m done. Then I have to brainstorm a nice way to end the piece without resorting to a cheesy fade-out.
How long time does it take you to create a single piece, from start to finish?
It really depends on what style I’m writing, but for my orchestral “JDR” style, anywhere from 2 to 4 hours is normal. The longest I ever spent on one was my Star Trek re-score (which has since been taken down due to copyright violations). I might have spent about a month on that one.
Which instruments do you play?
Violin was my first instrument, but I play piano as much due to the fact that it’s easier for me to compose on piano (and as far as I know, MIDI violin sequencing hasn’t reached its pinnacle yet). I also dabble in guitar, clarinet, melodica, mandolin – anything I can get my hands on really.
Where do you find inspiration?
Inspiration comes from anywhere. I live in New York City, so it’s impossible not to have some idea strike you as you’re walking down the streets of Greenwich Village. Sometimes a melody will come to me after seeing a picture of a scenic background (the reason why most of my music videos on youtube feature wide shots of empty land). Human relationships in my opinion offer the best inspiration, because it is taking true emotional connections and then transferring it into song (more times than once it has been easier to express what I’m trying to say by writing music than by trying to form words). Inspiration can come in the form of short motifs, melodies, chord progressions, or sometimes an entire piece – if I’m lucky my brain will spit out lyrics as well.
Which tracks of your own are your favorite, and why?
I think that Last Dance hands down is probably my favorite. I wrote it while I was going through a little bit of a tough time (math class specifically), but it really helped me get through the year. It’s also one of the only pieces that I wrote that doesn’t feel like it’s written by me, where it just emerges in my head fully formed (I’ve run around asking every composition teacher I’ve ever studied with to see if they can identify pieces when this happens, just to make sure I’m not subconsciously stealing – see Lion King Incident on my Hollywood Strings demo “Flying“). Some of my other favorites I haven’t uploaded yet – they’ll be coming soon enough.
You regularily upload your latest work to your youtube channel JDRcomposer. What do you think about the internet as a platform for promoting your work?
I think the internet, most particularly youtube, has its ups and downs for promoting work. One of the most obvious ups is that it’s an easy way to get people to listen to and comment on your work, and being a constant writer, I love to hear other’s feedback as a way for me to grow in my writing. The most obvious down for me is the easy ability to just download other’s music for free and advertise it as your own – it’s happened on more than one occasion.
Do you use the internet to discover new music/composers yourself? If so, any discoveries you’d like to share?
I lurk on the VI control forums and have been impressed by lots of people on there (Blake Robinson aka Blakus comes to mind – I’m a very large fan of his). It’s interesting to see how “non-professional” composers compare to “big shots”. It’ll be interesting how many composers become discovered by the internet and how the internet as a whole will affect the film scoring world.
You’ve also done your own fan re-scores for movies and games. Tell us about the difference between scoring for media, and composing in general. Any particular challenges/benefits from both?
Composing for media I find to be easier than just composing, because you don’t have to brainstorm a direction to go in. Usually when I come up with an idea, I draw a physical contour or map of where I want the piece to go, just to make sure that it’s not completely static. I often resort to pop-like formulas (Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus up a half step for that extra big of Disney magic – did I mention I’m a Disney junkie?). Scoring for media however forces you to follow something that already exists, whether it’s a 2 minute battle sequence or a 20 minute short film. You will always have somewhere to go when you’re working with movies. Video games are a bit of a different animal – composers of video games as far as I know rarely get footage and just concept pictures to work with, so you have to imagine a piece that could fit within the context of this image and make it work, while allowing it to loop an infinite amount of times without the player getting distracted and throwing the controller across the room because he can’t stand to hear that theme again.
What has been your favorite project to work on so far?
Probably one of the first projects I did was my favorite one – it’s a story that I tell anyone that asks me about deadlines and how to deal with them. It was in the middle of school in 11th grade, and I got an email on a Wednesday asking if I could score music for a 25 minute short, approximately 18 minutes of music. I said yes, as this was my first real short film job and I wanted to give it my best. The next email contained information that not only said that the music should be for string quartet (written out to be recorded) and synth orchestra behind it, but that I only had 2 days to write the music, as I had to go up to Vermont on Saturday to record the film on Sunday. Luckily, my school was very loose about missing days for serious work, and I Skyped with my director for two days straight, first scoring the entire film then writing out the string parts once we got it perfect. The end result was amazing, and worth every bit of effort. The film is called “Soul Keeper”, there’s probably a trailer for it somewhere on youtube.
What is it that, to you, makes soundtracks and scores for film, games and trailers special from other types of music?
I think that film music, especially early golden-age film music is more motivic than other types of music, meaning that certain themes come back every time that the theme’s source (a character, a place, a car – anything really) is mentioned. The only other type of music I can think of that conveys a similar repetition are in Ballets and Operas. Nowadays, film music has a lot of a pop music influence, and it a real melting pot of all styles.
Which composers are your favorite and why? What is your favorite score done by another composer?
I really don’t have a favorite composer. I go through phases of who I listen to, and I think that every film composer has his or her own merits. The two longest phases I went through were Hans Zimmer and John Williams, although it was mostly because I had just started film scoring and those were the only two names I knew. I most associate myself with Jerry Goldsmith, one of the few composers not really to get stuck doing the same genre over and over again. I think any composer just starting out should strive for some of what Jerry had – an inherent ability to write in any style that he chose. That said, my favorite scores of all time might have to be E.T. and Lion King (back to Mr Williams and Herr Zimmer). Lion King I fell in love with at a young age, and I can’t avoid crying at the end of the E.T. soundtrack (I have a shirt with the flying theme written out on it).
What music do you listen to yourself?
Really anything except for rap. I like melody and harmony, and the stronger those two are the more I listen to them. I enjoy all the big indie bands, some house music, pop music, jazzÉmusic is music and I like music.
Any hobbies and activities you enjoy when not making music?
Kayaking. I like kayaking. And as I’ve mentioned trips to Disney. More than anything Ilove spending time with my wonderful girlfriend, who’s been incredibly supportive of me and is my biggest inspiration.
Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to get into composing?
Take your time. Find your sound. Don’t rush into anything. And if you get a contract that seems too good to be true, it probably is. Just because you’re young doesn’t mean that you can’t get taken advantage of – it’s actually easiest when you are young and not familiar with the industry.
What are your future plans? Where would you like to see yourself in five-to-ten years?
Best case scenario would be owning a studio doing multiple large films every year, all while living on a private beach island. If that doesn’t work out, then I would love to just have any excuse to write what I love to write. Teaching is another road I would enjoy – once you get me started on film scoring it’s really difficult to get me to stop. The head of film scoring at NYU with whom I’ve been studying for four years wants me to start helping out with mock-ups there, as there isn’t really a masterclass on mock ups.
Anything else you’d like to say?
I’d like to share one of my favorite quotes from Charles Bernstein, who I had the pleasure of meeting a few years ago. He wrote several books on film scoring along with writing the original “Nightmare on Elm Street” score back in the 80’s. One of his books opens up with a quote that I used on my page in my senior class yearbook.
“Not all music is musical. But then again, not all love is lovely, not all poetry is poetic, and not all orange juice is fresh squeezed.”
In other words, stay true to yourself. Don’t try to write something that doesn’t define who you are. Let yourself shape your music, and let your music shape you.